The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution

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The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution by Lindsay M. Chervinsky (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2020)

In his slim volume on George Washington’s presidency, Forrest McDonald concluded that Washington had actually “done little in his own right, had often opposed the best measures of his subordinates, and had taken credit for achievements that he had no share bringing about.” But much eluded McDonald, who apparently assumed that those ideas of Washington’s subordinates had appeared without his having any role in bringing them about.

In The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of An American Institution, Lindsay Chervinsky dismantles whatever remains of McDonald’s decades-old thesis with an insightful look at how Washington conducted his presidency, working with his department heads during some of its most important episodes. Focusing on how Washington interacted with his subordinates, and how any why those ideas that carried the day came about in the first place, she leaves no question as to who was in command at what was known as the “executive mansion.” The result of her study is a well written, deeply insightful examination of Washington’s presidency and his personal leadership style.

The unifying theme of George Washington’s presidency was its novelty. His administration was the first of an office that had just been created by the new Constitution, neither king nor governor, but containing elements of each. In fact, the Constitution had remarkably little to say about how the role of President was to be performed. But this was no accidental omission.

For the men who drafted, debated, and signed the Constitution all understood one thing: the person sitting at the front of the room as their convention president would also be the new nation’s first President. It was to him that they would entrust the shaping of the office. And no one was more cognizant of that fact for the next eight years than Washington himself. Literally everything he did established precedent, and he often prefaced any discussion of a novel question with that very point.

One of the many questions he would need to decide was from where he would draw advice. Today, we are all familiar with the concepts of an Executive Office of the President, a National Security Council and most of all the President’s “Cabinet,” or the collective body comprised of the heads of all of the executive departments (plus a few additional key personnel in modern times). Who sits in the positions comprising the Cabinet is treated as among the very most important decisions the President makes.

But the concept of the department heads operating as a collective advisory body was not a foregone conclusion from the vantage point of 1789. The Constitution does not mention a cabinet, except to the extent it acknowledges that the executive branch would be divided into departments, each having their own head, which the Constitution refers to as its “principal Officer.” The only power that the Constitution explicitly provides the President over these principal Officers is requiring that they provide written opinions, and then only “upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.” This would imply that in-person discussions on a broad array of topics was not how the Founders anticipated the President obtain advice and guidance.

For in 1789, “Cabinet” was still a dirty word to many Americans. Prior to the Revolution, many of them had believed that the King was their friend, and that in fact it was his cabinet ministers who were to blame for the stream of what they viewed as “unconstitutional” legislation emerging from Parliament beginning in 1763. They had been used to a policy of “salutary neglect” during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century given all the strife in England and had developed a different understanding of the imperial relationship than their British cousins did during this period. They had also fought side by side, spending blood and treasure, in defense of the empire during the global Seven Years’ War. But after the war’s conclusion they were in for a rude awakening. Rather than being able to enjoy the fruits of victory, their newly won lands were cordoned off to them by British troops who remained on their soil and were to be paid through taxes imposed directly upon them. Chervinsky ably demonstrates how the Constitutional Convention took up and ultimately dismissed several concepts of a presidential cabinet, before abandoning any mention in the final product.

In fact, alternative vehicles for presidential advice were readily discernible. First, there was the Senate which was not only to consent to nominations and treaties but “advice” on them as well. Had the Senate emerged in that role, we might have had a different presidency, perhaps one more akin to a British Prime minister. But to be counseled by the Senate would have meant subjecting the administration of the laws to the timetable of a deliberative body. The impracticality of the Senate’s serving as the president’s council became quickly manifest. Similar practical and constitutional concerns arose as Washington explored the notion of using the Supreme Court to advise on legal issues, or maintaining some sort of surrogate presence in Congress, as Washington did early on with James Madison.

Having tried these options and found them wanting, Washington was finally pushed by the complex, novel, and cross cutting issues presented by Britain’s conflict with America’s Revolution War ally, France, to fall back on his old wartime practice of assembling his “counsel of war,” whereupon his leading lieutenants would be convened with a predetermined agenda of questions on which Washington wanted advice. Chervinsky notes how Washington used these during the war to both inform himself and deter criticisms of his conduct by getting everyone to settle on a consensus.  It was largely along this model that he would operate his cabinet going forward.

Chervinsky helpfully provides us with thumbnail sketches of Washington and his team: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph. She carefully demonstrates how each person’s wartime experience would have led them to conclude that a strong, federal executive was vital to a functional government. Jefferson would even retain and expand upon Washington’s presidency in this regard once he acceded to that office. Washington fought many political battles with these men and their successors by his side over issues related to executive preeminence in foreign relations, treaty making, domestic tranquility and the assertion of executive privilege. His presidency was shaped by their ideas and advice, but their ideas and advice were first shaped by Washington’s decision to seek it at the times, and in the method, he did.

In the end, the people accepted the presence of a cabinet because Washington deemed it efficacious and safe for republican governance. He established it as a malleable body whose usefulness would wax and wane with the president’s capacity for leadership, and its operations occur largely out of the public eye as the result of Washington’s actions. Adams and Jefferson would cement Washington’s model of a “private and idiosyncratic” institution, and by the time he left office the cabinet as the President’s advisory body was accepted on a broad and bi-partisan basis.

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